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Dr. Richard Alter DVM checks the shoulders of an adult female bald eagle, looking for any signs of breaks or dislocation following its collision with the windshield of an oncoming tractor trailer on I-95 in January. At his Guilford practice, Pet’s Friend Animal Hospital, Richard has been offering pro-bono services for three decades to assist animals in the care of local wildlife rehabilitation groups. (Photo by Angela Sheaffer )
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After an adult bald eagle collided with the windshield of an oncoming 18-wheeler on Jan. 22, police rushed the stunned bird to Killingworth’s non-profit raptor rehabilitation and rescue, A Place Called Hope. To assess the wild bird for hidden injuries, the rehab once again turned to the pro-bono services of Dr. Richard Alter, DVM, at Pet’s Friend Veterinary Hospital in Guilford.
“It was brought to me the next morning,” Richard recalls. “They wanted to see if anything was broken, or if there was internal injuries, so I radiographed it and gave it an exam.”
As viewed in a stunning video captured by the truck company’s dashboard camera (view it at @APlaceCalledHope on Facebook), roadkill had attracted the eagle to highway lane, but as she became spooked by approaching vehicles, she attempted to launch up and away from the site, colliding with the truck’s windshield, which shattered on impact. The eagle somehow clung to the side of the truck cab until the driver, who was shaken but unharmed, managed to bring the vehicle to a safe stop about 1,000 feet from the point of impact, and call state police.
As Richard was able to determine the next day, an x-ray showed the eagle suffered no breaks or other internal damage from the collision. However, the x-ray did find something disturbing—evidence the eagle had been hit by a pellet shot sometime in the past.
“There was a pellet inside the bird. We see this quite often, and it’s always shocking when we see it,” he says. “But people do this, and it’s kind of sad. It’s also completely against the law.”
In this case, the unexpected bad news had a silver lining—the pellet was lodged in muscle.
“It doesn’t cause a problem if it’s in the muscle,” says Richard. “If it’s in their intestinal system, the lead leaches into their body and it’s very toxic. But if the lead is in the muscle, it doesn’t get absorbed and cause poisoning. Especially if it’s one pellet, and in it’s in the muscle, it’s not poisoning to them. But it just shows what people will do.”
As there were no external signs indicating the eagle had been shot, the pellet was certainly a surprise find. But finding a pellet in a sick or injured raptor brought in for his care is not uncommon, says Richard.
“We see it quite frequently and we’re surprised every time. We’ve seen birds with multiple pellets in them, just by taking an x-ray and seeing them. We’re not taking x-rays for that, we just happen to see it,” he says.
A Place Called Hope volunteer Connie Velander, who recommended the Courier contact Richard to shine a light on all he does to assist, can attest to that.
“We just had a hawk x-rayed by Dr. Alter and he found that the hawk had been injured, but when he did the x-ray, he also found the bird had been shot before,” says Connie.
Richard has handled many other types of birds of prey while assisting A Place Called Hope. The non-profit, which is run entirely by volunteers, relies on donations of time, supplies, and money from supporters to assist at its state-licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility, which specializes in raptors. In addition to the goal of rehabilitating and releasing wild birds back into their environment, the organization also works to teach the public about protecting and respecting wildlife and raptors in particular. For more information, visit www.aplacecalledhoperaptors.com.
As of press time for this story, the female eagle was still in the care of A Place Called Hope. As the eagle showed signs of having regained the strength she needed to go back to the wild, a release was attempted on Jan. 29, but an encounter with two other eagles—one believed to be her mate, possibly with a new female—showed she wasn’t up to her full abilities. At that point, she was returned to the facility for additional recovery time.
Velander says a second, successful release is hoped to take place soon. Updates on the eagle and its pending release are being posted by A Place Called Hope on Facebook.
Years of Assistance to Wildlife in Need
It’s been about 30 years since Richard first took over his Guilford practice, located at 2477 Boston Post Road. He’s offered pro-bono veterinary services to wildlife rehabilitation groups throughout his time in town. One memorable assist in 2001 helped non-profit Wind Over Wings give a new lease on life to Faith the swan. The abandoned cygnet’s life was saved after she was rescued and fitted with a lightweight prosthetic bill, allowing her to eat.
It was through his connection with Wind Over Wings founder Hope Douglas that Richard met Christine Cummings, president and co-founder of A Place Called Hope.
“Actually, Christine got her start with Hope Douglas; and then she started A Place Called Hope, and I’ve been helping her out,” says Richard. “I love doing it. It’s something I enjoy doing, and if they ask for my help, I’m happy to give it.”
Getting His Start in Guilford
“I always knew I wanted to be a vet,” says Richard, who was interested in helping animals, even as a child.
“I would bring pretty much everything home and my parents pretty much allowed me to do that, which was a little strange,” he says, laughing. “I would kind of get in trouble—I would sometimes bring a dog home, and a couple of weeks later, the owner would show up!”
Richard practiced for a year and a half with a Danbury veterinary group before purchasing his Guilford practice circa 1990.
At the time, “it was a very small practice,” he says. “Guilford was a town that I knew had a very good school system, and I wanted to start a family here, and that’s what I did.”
Richard’s other family in Guilford is, of course, the staff at Pet’s Friend Animal Hospital.
“They are an excellent staff,” he says. “They are compassionate and very dedicated to helping our family of pets that are either our client’s pets or our wildlife family.”
Richard says he looks forward to continuing to serve his pet clients and helping groups such as A Place Called Hope for many years to come.
Dogs, cats and other pet clients arrive from all along the shoreline, with some even traveling to Guilford from New York, Fairfield, and even Massachusetts to continue visiting with him.
For Richard, the work is all about treating animals with compassion and care. He’s always felt that befriending the pets who come to visit, including offering them hypoallergenic treats, has been a great approach. In fact, the idea is now being endorsed industry-wide, he notes.
“There’s a new philosophy that’s developed recently, it’s called ‘fear-free practice.’ We’ve been practicing that for a long time,” says Richard. “We have a lot of dogs literally push into the exam room before I’m even in there, because they know they’re going to get treats when I get in there. The dogs love it and the owners love it.”
Working with Wildlife
Encountering the likes of wounded, sick, or injured wild fowl or birds of prey requires expertise and experience, but getting the chance to assist a wild animal at his practice is also enjoyable, Richard adds.
“I’m kind of used to it, because I’ve been doing it for years, but it’s always fun to see them,” says Richard.
In addition to being there in response to emergency situations, Richard also offers follow-up care for the wildlife he assists.
“I did a pinning of broken wing in a falcon a couple of weeks ago, and we expect to do radiographs in a couple of weeks on that one,” he says.
The falcon is also in the care of A Place Called Hope.
“It seems be doing well, but we’ll see in a couple of weeks if it’s healing properly,” says Richard.
During his decades of up-close encounters with wildlife many others only experience from a distance, Richard says the best part of helping them to heal is knowing they will be set free.
“The rewarding part is being able to release them back into the wild,” says Richard. “I don’t get to do that, but it’s nice to know they can be released.”
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